Top Ten Tuesday -Books I Meant to Read In 2020 but Didn’t Get To

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

This week’s topic is ‘books I meant to read in 2020 but didn’t get to’. Having had a look back through my blogs, I only posted one Top Ten Tuesday seasonal TBR list which was in the autumn. I decided not to do it much last year because I never keep to them so they become slightly pointless. As proved by the fact that I only read four books from the autumn one. I’m easily distracted – particularly by books on deal for my kindle and also, I received a lot of book tokens for my birthday, which is in November so again, new books distracted me.

Here is what is left of the Autumn TBR list:

  1. Five Quarters of the Orange – Joanne Harris – Not sure why I didn’t read this one. I have intentions of reading more Harris. A couple of years ago I read Different Class which was excellent and I vowed I would read more so I bought three titles for my kindle. However, as I didn’t read them straight away, they will probably sit on the kindle for ages.
  2. Live by Night – Dennis Lehane – I really meant to read this. I allowed myself to be distracted by The Book of Evidence by John Banville (and that wasn’t as good as I’d expected.) Definitely high up the list for the near future.
  3. The Grass is Singing – Doris Lessing – I added this to the list in the hope that it would make me read it. I really feel I should read some Lessing but I didn’t really enjoy the one book I have read by her (The Third Child) so who knows if it will ever happen.
  4. Shakey – Jimmy McDonough – I mistakenly thought this was an autobiography by Neil Young (rather than the biography that it is) and added it for Y for last year’s alphabet challenge. When it turned out not to fit I still made an attempt to read it. The style irritated me, however, so I put it back on the shelf.
  5. The Notebook – Nicholas Sparks – I’m curious to know what all the fuss is about but part of me knows I’m not going to love this so I keep bypassing it.
  6. Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee – Meera Syal – I’d like to keep this fairly near the top of things to read. It promises to be funny and I’m sorry I haven’t got to it yet.

Books Read in 2021 – 2. The Plot Against America – Philip Roth

Genre: Alternate History

Narrative Style: First person, chronological

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2005

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: In Roth’s alternative America, Roosevelt doesn’t win his unprecedented third term in 1940, instead heroic aviator and rampant isolationist Charles Lindbergh wins and immediately signs an understanding with Adolf Hitler and refuses to get involved with the war in Europe. He then embarks on a program of policies which will change the future for America’s Jews. The Roth family live in New Jersey in a Jewish neighbourhood and they immediately find themselves on the sharp end of a new wave of anti-Semitic persecution.

Time on Shelf: I’ve been meaning to read some Roth for a while. He has been on the long list of greats that I need to read for a long time. I watched the mini-series of The Plot Against America last year and really enjoyed it so when it came up on my kindle deals email I jumped at the chance to read it.

This is the fourth alternate history book based on the second world war in some way that I’ve read and it is easily the best, probably because it was the most believable. Unlike the others, this isn’t a story of spies or policemen (like Fatherland by Robert Harris or Dominion by C. J. Sansom) but the story of an ordinary family trying to cope with the changes to their world. You could say The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick is about ordinary people but it is too strange to be a realistic read. It also helped me to understand why this is a topic that novelists – and readers – seem drawn to. The ultimate in what if questions, it helps us to understand what might have happened in order to ensure that we never let it happen again.

The novel starts slowly. We get to know the Roths and their life. They are expectant of a Roosevelt win. Their elder son is a keen artist and has many drawings of Lindbergh of whom he is a great admirer. Philip, the younger son, is a keen collector of stamps. They are living a fairly ordinary life. They are not rich, they work hard but they have a small amount of happiness. The way this changes is slow and sometime subtle but no less sinister for that. In fact, it allows Lindbergh’s supporters to ignore the complaints and continue in their support of the president.

The master class policy in this case is the setting up of the “Just Folks” scheme, a part of the Office of American Absorption which sees Jewish children sent away to stay with Christian families for “Apprenticeships”. The Roth family view this as a sinister attempt by the government to drive Jewish families apart but some view it – including the powerful Rabbi, Bengelsdorf – as a positive way for middle America to learn that Jewish people are just like them. It is this duality that I found particularly disturbing – that the clear discrimination of the Jewish people was turned around by the government and its supporters as nothing of the sort. It was like two roads which had been running next to each other and which start to move further and further away from each other until the two viewpoints are poles apart and completely irreconcilable. And it works. When Sandy is sent away for the summer to work on a tobacco farm, he returns having absorbed the Christian values of the family he was sent to and is quickly in conflict with the rest of his family.

The novel is written from the point of view of “Philip Roth” a Jewish boy growing up in New Jersey, no doubt with some of Roth’s actual childhood memories (when he and a friend follow Christians home on the bus for example). This gives it a sense of realism that it may not have had was it was narrated through an adult’s eyes. Philip watches these events but he does not always understand them, a feeling that is somewhat shared by the reader. Finally, that Philip is narrating these events from some point in the future gives hope that this will not be forever.

At the novels end, the Roths are in pieces, all still alive but much damaged by events. There has been rioting, violence and they have lived in fear of their lives. Lindbergh has disappeared and the country is in a state of martial law. Although things look grim for them, we know from the news story style of the previous chapter that their ordeal will soon start to be over. Although, as has been seen in current America, things do not immediately change just because a new person has been elected into the White House.

Finally, reading this book at this point in time made it very easy to imagine this happening. It didn’t seem impossible that it might happen in the US because it was happening in the US. A reality star who was popular for all the wrong reasons, who constantly shouted about fake news, who had a very clear list of whom he viewed as Un-American; the parallels couldn’t be clearer. And while the US now has hope for the future, in the shape of Joe Biden, the story is far from over. We just have to hope that it will start to get better when he is inaugurated, in a few days time.

Books Read in 2021 – 1 The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. (Contains spoilers.)

Genre: Dystopia, Feminist.

Narrative Structure: First person from three separate points of view

Published: 2019

Ratings: 4/5

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: More than fifteen years after then end of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood takes up the story of Gilead once more. Three narrative voices move the story forward – Aunt Lydia, secretly writing an explosive narrative that will help bring Gilead down, Daisy, a teenager living in Canada with her adoptive parents and Agnes, a child living within Gilead and brought up to never question its truths. This novel answers the questions left open at the end of the Handmaid’s Tale.

Time on Shelf: I bought this with an Amazon voucher I got got my birthday this year in November so not very long. I was keen to read it as the Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favourite books and Atwood is one of my favourite authors .

I did enjoy this book. Let’s start by saying that. Atwood is a masterful storyteller and the three narratives hang together nicely. It was interesting to see Gilead from the inside – Agnes’ narrative showing what it was like to be brought up within Gilead’s value system added interesting detail to Offred’s earlier narrative. Aunt Lydia’s narrative – the most interesting and convincing of the three – gave an alternative origin story for the start of Gilead and how she came to be in such a position of power. After she is brutalised into confirming Gilead’s regime, she vows to herself that she will revenge this treatment, no matter how long it takes and no matter what she has to do. In the end, she has to become a monster and wait a long time for this to happen. I’m not sure whether I liked that she becomes more ambiguous – does it justify what she did? True, it makes you think about the nature of power and what you might do yourself in such a situation. Would you choose death over having to be a part of the regime like Lydia’s friend, Anita or would you take a role? Important questions, of course, but I think I preferred it when she was an out and out foe.

I found Daisy’s narrative less convincing. As with the recent TV series, being able to see Gilead from the outside, knowing that the outside world existed, somehow made it less believable for me. I’m not sure why. All the way through, this narrative seemed contrived – from the death of her adoptive parents, to her being picked up by Gilead’s Pearl Girls., to her (possibly hallucinated) vision of her mother at the end. And at the end of the day, she didn’t need to be the real baby Nicole. They could have tattooed anyone and sent them in.

It was a nice touch to have both Agnes and Daisy be the daughters of June / Offred but if this was meant to be a big twist, it certainly wasn’t. It was apparent who the girls were right from the start. Maybe that was intentional. It was a very effective way of answering the questions about what happened next. Offred is like a shadow throughout. Her survival is implied by the fact that Daisy was brought up outside of Gilead.

Atwood has said that this book was meant to answer all of the questions that readers have asked her over the years. The Handmaid’s Tale ends ambiguously and I can understand that people want some sort of closure over that. However, one of the main things that I like that about Atwood is the open ended nature of her endings. Of course, you have questions but the reader is free to answer them however they feel. So the ending can be hopeful or otherwise. It leaves the options open. And I like that because it encompasses both – the reader can hope for the best even while they know it may not be. Once it is laid down a certain way, all ambiguity disappears.

Finally, it all just seems a little easy. It comes together seamlessly. Agnes (now Aunt Victoria) and Daisy (now Nicole) make it into Canada with very little trouble. Gilead starts to fall in a less than convincing way. (Really was that all it took?) But maybe Atwood wants an end to it. I’m honestly not sure I would read on if there were any more.

2021 Reading List

As mentioned in my last blog, I am not doing an online reading challenge this year. The main reason is I really want to clear my TBR pile and most challenges seem to require me to buy at least one or two new books. I usually buy any such books on my Kindle because at least they don’t take up physical space but I have a ridiculous amount of unread books on there now so I really need to reign it in a bit.

Last year, I attempted an alphabetical challenge and while I didn’t quite manage it (I missed Y) I did enjoy it and was tempted to do it again. However, that would require me buying a book for Q, X and Y and I don’t want to have to do that. While I was bemoaning the fact that I like to have a list of what I will read for the year but I couldn’t find challenge I wanted to do – and probably to shut me up – my husband suggested that I let him choose a list of possible books to read this year – from our shelves and my kindle. I agreed. Possibly foolishly as he seemed to get a lot of glee out of putting things on the list that he knows I’ve been avoiding.

Anyway, here is my list. Although there are no requirements, I’m going to try to write a review for each one. I want to blog more this year anyway so it will help with that as well. There are a lot more classics here then I would normally read so we’ll have to see how it goes.

  1. The Girl in a Swing – Richard Adams
  2. The Testaments – Margaret Atwood Finished 8/1/21
  3. Emma – Jane Austen
  4. The Coral Island – R. M. Ballantyne
  5. Peter Pan – J. M. Barrie
  6. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis de Bernières
  7. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
  8. Kindred – Octavia E. Butler
  9. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – John le Carre
  10. My Antonia – Willa Cather
  11. The Long Call – Anne Cleeves
  12. The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
  13. Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe
  14. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
  15. Lake of Dreams – Kim Edwards
  16. Middlemarch – George Eliot
  17. Charlotte Gray – Sebastian Faulks
  18. A Passage to India – E. M. Forster
  19. The Collector – John Fowles
  20. Take Nothing With You – Patrick Gale
  21. Pincher Martin – William Golding
  22. England Made Me – Graham Greene
  23. Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
  24. Mysterious Skin – Scott Heim
  25. The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway
  26. The Aspern Papers / Turn of the Screw – Henry James
  27. The Institute – Stephen King
  28. The Buddha of Suburbia – Hanif Kureishi
  29. Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D. H. Lawrence
  30. Tishomingo Blues – Elmore Leonard
  31. Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
  32. No one Writes to the Colonel – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  33. Machines Like Me – Ian McEwan
  34. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  35. Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell
  36. Dr Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
  37. Bleeding Hearts – Ian Rankin
  38. The Plot Against America – Philip Roth – Currently Reading
  39. Austerlitz – W. G. Sebald
  40. The Accidental – Ali Smith
  41. On Beauty – Zadie Smith
  42. Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
  43. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson
  44. Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
  45. Bech at Bay – John Updike
  46. Candide – Voltaire
  47. The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead
  48. A Streetcar named Desire – Tennessee Williams
  49. Green River Rising – Tim Willocks
  50. The Midwich Cuckoos – John Wyndham

2020 Reading Catch Up 2021 Reading Plans

One of the good things that 2020 has been is a good reading year for me. I met my target of reading 40 books on Goodreads. While this might sound like very many, some of them were quite difficult – Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, for example or John Updike’s Rabbit Run. However, I didn’t quite manage to read an author for every letter of the alphabet for my reading challenge, having mistaken Shakey as a Neil Young autobiography rather than a biography. Having no unread Y authors in the house and this being mid december, I decided that I didn’t have time to try and procure another Y and read The Book of Evidence by John Banville as my last book of 2020 instead.

Top Five Reads of 2020

  1. Bridge of Clay – Markus Zusak – This was one of the first books I read last year and I could not put it down. I was worried it might not live up to The Book Thief but, in fact, I enjoyed it more. It was the story of Clay and his brothers, their relationship with each other and with their father. It was emotional without being sentimental. The storyline was non-chronological and needed some unpicking but I like to have to work a bit and not have the answers handed to me on a plate. Definitely recommended.
  2. Born a Crime – Trevor Noah – I’ve always admired Noah. He has a reasonable and sensible view on things that always just seems to cut through the bullshit. This memoir about his South African childhood is both tragic and comic and never less than enthralling. Noah was a naughty child and he starts by telling about his mother chasing him and how he learned to run so fast. Pretty quickly we are into more serious territory, given that Noah’s very existence was considered a crime. Noah’s mother came across as a fantastically strong woman who has clearly been a huge influence on him and seems to be responsible for his attitude to life.
  3. The Hand That First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell – There are two main storylines in this novel – Ted and his wife, Elina, in the present day, and the story of Lexi Sinclair set some time in the past. I admit I did manage to work out some of the twists to this one but it was beautifully written and I still felt compelled to read on.
  4. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro – I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this or not. I’d read Ishiguro before and I hadn’t been massively impressed but this was so different to the other two, I was quickly taken with it. The story of Stephens, the butler at Darlington Hall and his unrealised love for Miss Kenton, the housekeeper is a subtle and clever joy from start to finish.
  5. No is not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need – Naomi Klein – This is a call to arms. Klein’s political observations were on the money as were her solutions to the current political situation in the US. Klein argues that Trump is not an aberration but the logical conclusion of recent policies on both the left and the right. She then suggests ways of working together in order to make sure it never happens again. Even with Biden now about to take over the white house, we shouldn’t be complacent and allow the same issues that caused it to happen before to resurface so it happens again.

Of course, there were also less good reads although none warranted a one star on Goodreads. The three I liked the least, I expected to like better – No Surrender by Constance Maud was recommended by a BBC program on women’s fiction and I thought it sounded interesting, being about the fight for suffrage but it was tediously dogmatic. P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley was also tedious. James never managed to quite pull off her imitation of Austen and the style spoiled the story for me. Finally, Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain was not the first world war memoir I was expecting and I felt that it talked too much of things outside of her nursing career and I did not find that particularly interesting. (I just realised that all of these were by women. I’m not sure whether that is important but I do often find it hard to bond with female authors.)

And for next year, well, I’m not yet sure what my reading list will look like. I’m not following a online challenge because I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do. My husband has volunteered to give me a list of books and I have agreed to this although I admit that I’m feeling a little worried. There are certain books on our shelves that he feels I should have read and I think there is a good reason why I haven’t. The Lord of the Rings is one, anything by Hemingway is another. So we shall see. I’ve started reading The Testaments by Margaret Atwood just to ensure that I’ve at least one good read over the next twelve months.

Alphabet Soup – Author Edition – Miss Chopsticks by Xinran

Genre: Historical Fiction, Bildungsroman

Narrative Style: Third person from three different points of views.

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2007

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Three, Five and Six are country girls who move to Nanjing to try and get jobs in order to help their family and to prove that girls can be more than mere chopsticks. The novel details their difficulties in coming to terms with the different ways of the city and the various jobs they end up doing.

Reading Challenges: Alphabet Soup – Author Edition

The Li Sisters are from a poor rural area of China where girls are not valued. They are considered chopsticks – abundant and not that strong or important – compared to boys who are room beams – able to hold up the world. As such, they do not even have proper names, being called Three, Five and Six. Their father is a failure as he has only daughters. Apart from six, they do not have much education as the family could not afford it. They go to Nanjing to try and get jobs, to help their families and prove that girls can be important.

This novel was set in the early 2000s and based on interviews that Xinran conducted with various country girls working in Nanjing. I kept having to remind myself that it was so recent. It seems hard to credit that China was so cut off from the rest of the world and only just seeming to be coming to terms with technology and capitalism. The difference between the cities and the country is enormous. Probably the last time there was such a big difference in the UK was before the industrial revolution.

The three girls all end up with jobs that seem to represent the possibilities of the new China – one working in a restaurant which is aiming to take on the the American giants Kentucky Fried Chicken, one in a bookstore serving tea to intellectuals and foreigners and one in a Chinese water therapy centre. The girls are astonishingly naïve which is to be expected, given that they have never been further than their village but again gave the novel a much older feel.

Xinran tells their story simply and without melodrama. The girls are charming and their experiences are interesting. They learn to deal with the city, with the ways that Chinese society is changing and their story seems emblematic of the new society. It seems a largely hopeful picture.

The story ends with the girls triumphant return to their village, full of the knowledge that they have made friends and made a life for themselves. Their uncle was picked up by the police for sleeping in a doorway when he came to find them to take them home and all the new friends and associates the girls have made pull together to try and get him out. Although, in the end, it is sheer luck that he is released rather than anything that they do.

In her afterword, Xinran explains the inspiration for the stories and what happened when she tried to trace the three girls that the story is based on. It seems that the future wasn’t quite so rosy. For example, the bookshop that Six worked in had been closed down for selling banned books and it was unknown whether her dreams of education came to fruition. China’s progress towards freedom of thought and action has clearly not been straightforward and while I knew that already, I found that I had been caught up in the gentle optimism of the three girls and their successes.

Alphabet Soup Author Edition – Rabbit, Run – John Updike.

Genre: American, Anti-heroes,

Narrative Style: Chronological, third person from various points of view

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1960

Format: Hardback

Synopsis: Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom’s best days are behind him. He was the star basketball player when he was at school. Since then, he has married and has a child. His wife is pregnant again. But he doesn’t love his wife and he hates his job demonstrating a gadget in a store. He is dissatisfied and fed up so, on impulse, he deserts his wife and son and embarks on a journey to find something more satisfying.

Writing Challenges: Alphabet Soup – Author Challenge.

This was a hard book to read. Not because of the prose. Updike’s style is easy enough to read. It was the characters. I expected that I would probably have difficulty with Rabbit Angstrom. And he was unpleasantly sure of himself, always convinced he was on the right path simply because he had chosen it. But I had expected that there would have been some way of empathising with him. This was not the case. Nor was it any easier to empathise with his wife who was also an unpleasant drunk. I have no doubt that this is an accurate representation of a certain type of American masculinity and the havoc it can wreak but I didn’t feel drawn into the story. I was like an observer watching the decay of society from a distance.

At first, Rabbit just drives off, wanting to be far away from his wife and son. He gets lost and ends up driving back to his hometown. He doesn’t want to go home and admit defeat so he goes to see his old basketball coach who is full of Rabbit’s past glories – perhaps the only person to still see Harry as if he was a sporting hero. They go to dinner and Rabbit meets Ruth, a part time prostitute.

Rabbit forces himself into her life. He has soon set up a alternative domestic arrangement for himself. Out of everyone, Ruth is perhaps the easiest to have some sympathy for. She tries not to let Rabbit into her life but he just doesn’t give up. He is unable to see her as anything other than a means to sex. Rabbit is obsessed with sex perhpas because he thinks he is good at it and so it gives him the same sense of worth that BAsketball used to. Indeed, his sexual obsession is a facet of his relationship with his wife also. When he returns to her, after their second child is born, he is unable to leave her alone even though she has so recently given birth. When she refuses him, he walks out the door again.

This is also a book about religion. Rabbit is unable to completely escape his marriage as he meets priest, Jack Eccles who sees it as his duty to bring Rabbit and his wife back together. Rabbit’s conversations with Jack prove how far he is from God. Like his marriage, Rabbit finds the current framework of religious beliefs unsatisfactory. He is looking for something more, something spiritual but he doesn’t have the intelligence to really understand what it is.

This novel has a tragic ending. When Rabbit deserts his wife for the second time, she gets drunk and accidentally drowns their baby while trying to clean her up in the bath. This was the only time I felt any real emotions during the reading of this book. I couldn’t quite believe Updike was going to let it happen. It was heartbreaking, both for the reader and for Rabbit and his wife. However, any sympathy for Rabbit quickly disappears as he is soon back to his old tricks and is off out the door again.

I’m in two minds as to whether I will read anymore of this series. I’m not really sure that there could be anything new to say really. A part of me is curious to see where Updike will take the narrative but perhaps that isn’t enough to carry on with a series that will undoubtedly be a bit of a slog.

Alphabet Soup Challenge: Author Edition – Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov.

Genre: Literary Fiction, Anti-Heroes, Masculinity

Narrative Style: First person

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1955

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Humbert Humbert is a self-confessed lover of nymphets. When he sees Dolores Haze for the first time, he knows that she is the culmination of all of his most intimate fantasies. So much so that he agrees to marry her mother – even though he holds her in high contempt – in order to be near to her. When it seems that Lolita is gaining attention elsewhere, he takes her away on a car journey that crosses America.

Reading Challenges: Alphabet Soup Challenge: Author Edition

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. What I mean is, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to cope with reading it. Most people have some idea of what it is about and it is still considered shocking so I assumed it must be quite explicit. It is not. In fact, release is often deferred and the sexual encounters are not described in any straightforward way. Nabokov prefers metaphors and allusions to full on descriptions and thank goodness for that.

Not that it makes it an easier read or any less shocking. Getting to see inside the head of a paedophile is never going to be a fun experience and Humbert Humbert is unpleasant in every possible way. He tries to normalise his lust for Lolita which makes for uncomfortable reading. Thankfully, Nabokov does not allow any pity or sympathy for him. He is creepy, using his good looks to get what he wants – from grown women as well as from Lolita. He is particularly cynical in his using of Lolita’s mother. He has no redeeming features. He has contempt for everything and everyone around him. The America he describes is of a low standard with crumbling motels and unpleasant people. He is an European immigrant and clearly thinks himself better than them. He frequently describes himself as poet, as writer. He has a taste for the finer things. He appears to think that his sexual longings come under this heading as well. All of this makes me better than you.

There is not a single person in the novel that Humbert actually likes. Outside of his sexual fantasies of Lolita, he finds her quite disagreeable. She is sulky, frequently has tantrums and he has no care for any of her interests. He uses her for sex like he might use a blow up doll and feels no need to have any interest in her outside of her body. Even though it is not described – Humbert preferring to concentrate on describing the seediness of their journey across America – it is still apparent that every time they stop somewhere then Humbert will rape Lolita and this knowledge is hard to stomach. It is satisfying when eventually she manages to escape his clutches. Not that life gets that much better for her.

The book is very well written with lots of clever word play and complicated vocabulary. (I spent a lot of time looking up words on my phone. If only I’d been reading it on my kindle.) Not to mention all the French phrases which are scattered through the novel. Having said that, the writing flows really well. It doesn’t feel that Nabakov is showing off his immense vocabulary a la Ian McEwan where every sentence feels like an opportunity to show the reader how very clever he is. It is compelling, particularly towards the end when Humbert is searching for his rival with murder on his mind.

Overall, I am glad that I have read this book but I’m not sure I would recommend it to anyone else. It wasn’t enjoyable. It was painful and discomforting.

Alphabet Soup Author Edition – Music and Silence – Rose Tremain

Genre: Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: Various third person and first person points of view.

Rating:3/5

Published: 1999

Format: Hardback

Synopsis: When Peter Clare is sent to be lutenist to King Christian of Denmark, he doesn’t realise exactly how much his life – and the lives of those around him are going to change.

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Edition.

This book has been on my shelf for a long time. I’ve read one other Rose Tremain – Sacred Country – and I didn’t love it. I probably wouldn’t have bought any others but this was offered for a couple of pounds because I’d spent so much and I’m a sucker for those sorts of offers. As a result, it has sat on my shelf for 20 years. Not helped by the fact that it is a hardback and I can’t say I particularly enjoy reading those. It seemed a good idea to make myself read it by putting it on this challenge.

This isn’t a bad book. I wavered between three and four stars all the way through. There are a number of different storylines which gradually come closer and closer together. The relationship between King Christian and Peter Clare was interesting as was the story of the King’s childhood friendship with Bror Brorson. I was less interested in the King’s self interested wife, Kirsten Munk and her sexual exploits. Also, the love story between Emilia and Peter Clare was – in my opinion – unduly romantic and sentimental. I’d rather have learned more about the King and his problems.

Whilst there is a lot of historical detail in this novel and you get a good feel for the nature of the Danish Court, I feel Tremain is less successful when she has conjured characters – such as Emilia and Marcus Tilsen – from her own imagination. Often there is the tone of the fairy tale and there are elements of magical realism – in the characters of Marcus and his stepmother, Magdalena, particularly. While, in general, I do enjoy magical realism, I found that it didn’t fully fit with the other stories that were more like straight historical fiction.

The ending was based on out of character changes of heart and lucky deaths which I found a little lazy. When even the character is saying I don’t understand where this change of heart has come from, perhaps the writer should take a different path. Everything was wrapped up a bit too neatly for my tastes.

Top Ten Tuesday – Book quotes

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

This week’s top ten is favourite literary quotes. No particular theme to these – just my favourite quotes.

  1. “Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.” The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood.
  2. “The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonorably, foolishly, viciously.” Flaubert’s Parrot – Julian Barnes
  3. “Would you be so kind as to give a little thought to the question of what your good would be doing if evil did not exist, and how the earth would look if the shadows were to disappear from it?” The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov
  4. “Out of the frying pan into the fire! What is marriage but prostitution to one man instead of many? No different!” Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter.
  5. “She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket” Farewell my Lovely – Raymond Chandler
  6. “They faced each other at opposite ends of an illusion” Dancer from the Dance – Andrew Holleran
  7. Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” 1984- George Orwell
  8. “The whole of life is just like watching a film. Only it’s as though you always get in ten minutes after the big picture has started, and no one will tell you the plot, so you have to work it out all yourself from the clues.” Moving Pictures – Terry Pratchett
  9. “Fuckin failures in a country of failures. Its nae good blamin it oan the English fir colonising us. Ah don’t hate the English. They’re just wankers. We are colonised by wankers. We can’t even pick a decent, vibrant healthy society to be colonised by. No.. we are ruled by effete arseholes. What does that make us? The lowest of the low, the scum of the earth. The most wretched servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat intae creation. Ah don’t hate the English. They just git oan wis the shite thev got. Ah hate the Scots.” Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh
  10. “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.” – The Passion – Jeanette Winterson